Your to-do list is there to guide you. To tell you what needs doing and when. When you use your to-do list for that purpose, it works and it works well.
When you spend too much time each day reorganising your to-do lists and playing around with the settings, that’s when your to-do list stops working for you.
I’ve seen so many elaborate setups in my time. Projects with sub-projects linked to labels and tags. Tasks cross-referenced with other tasks. Tasks organised by colour and sub-projects on top of sub-projects. All these elaborate setups do is add complexity that requires a lot of managing and ultimately too much time to find what needs to happen next.
If we stop for a moment and ask the question: what do I want my to-do list to do? The answer to how to set up your to-do list becomes clear. To tell you what tasks need to happen next. For that you do not need anything elaborate. Just a daily list of tasks. To achieve a relevant daily list of tasks, all you need is a set of tasks you have decided needs your attention on that particular day. A to-do list does not need to be any more complex than that.
When you add complexity into your to-do list you waste time. Time you could spend doing the tasks that need doing. It also means you have more decisions to make and we now know that your brain has a limited number of decisions it can make each day. Once it goes past its optimum number you experience a condition called “decision fatigue” This is where you are no longer able to make good rational decisions. This means that the simpler your to-do list is, the less decisions you need to make, the more effective your brain will be throughout the day.
When your to-do list for the day contains a limited number of clearly written out tasks not only will your list be manageable, you will also require less decision making as your to-do list is a pre-decided list of actions. Each day you start at the top of your list and work your way down.
With a simple list like this, all you need do is spend a few minutes at the end of each day reviewing what you have planned for tomorrow, compare that with your calendar to make sure you have the time to complete those tasks (and if not to reduce the list to a more manageable number) and you will be good to go.
Now, of course, you do need a place to hold your future tasks and that is why it is important to have a list of active projects. These project folders are really just holding pens of tasks yet to be completed. Whether you decide to organise these by projects or areas of focus is really up to you. That would depend on the type of work you do. If you work in a project specific job, then projects may be the best way to organise your tasks. But then you may work in a less project specific job, in which case areas of focus may work better for you. These are decisions you need to make when you are developing your system.
Beyond that, you are really adding complexity and that should be resisted at all costs. The ‘perfect’ to-do list is a list you refer to first thing in the morning to see what tasks you have to complete today and then you get on with your work. You should not need to refer to your list again until later in the day when you have completed your more important tasks. For a point of reference, I usually look at my to-do list two to three times per day. Mid morning, mid afternoon and in the evening when I review what I have completed, plan tomorrow and process my inbox.
To-do lists are there to help you know what needs doing and when. They will never be able to do the work for you and the simpler your list is, the more likely you will get your work done. When you add complexity in the hope your list of tasks to do will magically disappear, you are only fooling yourself. Your to-do list will never do that for you.
So keep things simple. Write clear tasks that tell you exactly what you need to do and focus on doing the work. When you do that, you will soon find yourself becoming better organised, more productive and a lot less stressed.
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